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When Words Fail: Poetry during tragic times

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

Poetry can access places beyond words when all words fail. This is the great paradox of poetry: Poets arrange words in a particular way that opens up a place beyond words. Sometimes life, as we see it unfold, becomes unfathomable, unpalatable, unthinkable. We feel powerless, feckless, our minds unable to find solutions and ways beyond ongoing atrocities and continuing heartbreak. We think we know the answers to the questions being asked of us. We think we know the way, but it leads to unbreakable barriers: our own egos with our ways, in conflict and incompatible with other egos with their ways. In times like these poetry helps people navigate their inner struggles with hopelessness. Poems can be like spells we cast out into the world, always for the good of something, the effects of which are not right away seen.

We mix words like ingredients in a recipe, or herbs in a cauldron of medicine, to create the most powerful combination possible. Poetry can have an agenda, but it is not necessarily transparent communication. Or it can be subversive in its transparency. Take this poem by Hafez:

Don’t Despair…

by Hafez

Joseph to his father in Canaan shall return, don’t despair walk on; and Jacob’s hut will brighten with flowers, don’t despair walk on.

Aching hearts heal in time, vanished hopes reappear, the disparate mind will be pacified, don’t despair walk on.

As the spring of life grows the newly green meadow, roses will crown the sweet nightingale’s song, don’t despair walk on

If the world does not turn to your whims these few days, cosmic cycles are preparing to change, don’t despair walk on.

If desperation whispers you’ll never know God, it’s the talk of hidden games in the veil, don’t despair walk on.

O heart, when the vast flood slashes life to its roots, Captain Noah waits to steer you ashore, don’t despair walk on.

If you trek as a pilgrim through sands to Kaabeh with thorns lodged deep in your soul shouting why, don’t despair walk on

Though oases hide dangers and your destiny’s far, there’s no pathway that goes on forever, don’t despair walk on.

My trials and enemies face me on their own, but mystery always backs up my stand, don’t despair walk on.

Hafez, weakened by poverty, alone in the dark, this night is your pathway into the light, don’t despair walk on.

[translated by Haleh Pourafzal and Roger Montgomery]

Nefarious sources of tragedy thrive on the desperation tragedy causes. Hafez himself, on at least one occasion, was forced to flee for his life in Persia. Poetry that urges us away from desperation during desperate times is subversive. In this poem, repetition of "don’t despair walk on" knocks in our heads like a spiritual mantra. Eleven times! The intention of this poem is transparent, it’s clear. But the approach to that intention is subversive. Every desperate situation requires us to have the courage to move on. Desperation never serves anyone. Desperation freezes us in fear.

A teacher once taught me that every word we speak has one of the five basic emotions behind it — Anger, Grief, Joy, Fear, or Sympathy. Most often in the west, fear stands behind our words. Fear comes from a sense that we might lose something — our lives (i.e. death), the lives of others, a way of life we are accustomed to, a precious material item. Our entire materialist culture is based on fear. And the current proliferation of tragedies strengthens this fearful foundation.

In many ways, poetry gives us a chance to release into the world words founded in emotions other than fear. Emotions are each important in their own way. This is not a bid for always embracing positivity, or for denying tragedy. But grief, for example, better responds to tragedy than fear. Poetry helps us steady our emotional feet in a world out of balance. Nursery rhymes, for example, have helped children cope when times are rough. Rhyming’s reintroduction to 1950’s American poetry can be traced to a need during and after war times to return meaning and structure to a world that lacked both of those things. Adam Gopnik in "The Rules of Rhyme" [New Yorker, May 30, 2022] discussing Auden’s use of rhyme, writes of how its goal for people who experienced war "was to recuperate, on informal American terms, the heritage of formal European manners."

While "European manners" are no longer of any use or interest to most of us, poetry has an edifying effect when things are falling apart. It achieves its "recuperating" effect through rhythmic structure, and other tools such as alliteration and iambic pentameter, or even formal structures like sonnets and villanelles. So many times, I have been presented with a poem from the past, perhaps from a friend, who may or may not know anything about what is going on in my life, but which illuminates my present so perfectly.

Poetry beats the tribal drums in our heads, conjuring healing and understanding that our everyday language fails to bring us. These structures can help us rebuild from tragedies that have torn us down, figuratively and literally.

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